Georgetown University is not the only college in the history of higher education that capitalized on Black slave labor.

-Cobretti Williams

by Cobretti Williams

Students of Georgetown University recently voted in overwhelming favor to increase tuition fees for all undergraduate students. Compared to most cases when student fees are assessed for the operation costs of the university, this circumstance was different. The impetus for this student body vote was to create a reparation fund for the descendants of the enslaved, people bought, used, and sold by the university. A unique action on the part of students, the significance of this vote creates social and political implications for higher education programs and policies that go far beyond Georgetown University.

While $27.20 seems arbitrary in the eyes of those outside the institution, this fee is a symbolic and historical representation of the 272 enslaved sold by Georgetown University in 1838. Jesuits of the Catholic Church in Maryland made frequent use of their labor for plantations as well as the construction of what would become Georgetown University. However, once Jesuits ceased operation of plantations in Maryland, the 272 captives who contributed to Georgetown University were ultimately sold to plantation owners in Louisiana in order to pay off remaining university debts.

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Detailed accounts of this period of the university’s founding were unearthed by the George Memory Project, which also raised money to identify thousands of descendants of those sold in 1838. In addition to connecting these descendants, the project catalyzed deeper exploration of the institution’s history of slavery that led to student response and triggered a vote for the increased student fee.

Unfortunately, Georgetown University is not the only college in the history of higher education that capitalized on Black slave labor for institutional gain. University of Virginia utilized slave labor to build its campuses and Northeast schools, including Harvard and Yale, profited from the expansive industry and economy of slavery.

Access to education for Black students has been limited when compared to white counterparts, even as some of the most prestigious institutions were constructed through slave labor. As a result, Black students remain an underrepresented student populations in higher education, making up approximately 15% of all undergraduate students in the United States. Moreover, Black students encounter a variety of challenges during college that create a hostile campus climate, including racial bias and Eurocentric curriculum and teaching practices, to name a couple.

The difference for Georgetown – given the recent vote for the reparation fund – is how it seeks to depart from this narrative by being the first institution to seek restorative justice for the crimes committed against Black people and Black students in higher education. The impetus for this change comes from students, arguably the biggest and most significant stakeholder of higher education, indicating a rising emergence of student voice in the policymaking and administrative processes of higher education.

With the racist history of many predominantly white institutions becoming more mainstream knowledge, some are attempting to atone for the past. Seeking to rectify the discovery of Georgetown’s history of slavery, college president John DeGoia issued a formal apology in 2017 to the descendants of those sold. Other institutions have sought to address these concerns through alternative means by hiring more diverse faculty or creating working committees for racial justice.

However, these efforts have been largely futile. Colleges are becoming more expensive, particularly for Black students from low-income backgrounds. College admissions has become a contentious site of debate on affirmative action, going so far as to question the merit and admittance of Black students. In many ways, the history of racism and anti-Blackness in higher education, though not to the extent of slavery, still perpetuates practices, programs, and policies that marginalize Black students.

Radical policy changes enacted by institutions like Georgetown not only recognize the history of oppression in our most prestigious colleges, it also further highlights the fact that administrators, trustee boards, and college leadership must find new ways of improving campus climate and university efforts towards social justice for its students and society.

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Though the student vote must be approved by the university, its potential passage would have a significant impact on the student body of Georgetown, Black students attending colleges and universities around the country, and the equity-based, social justice initiatives of higher education moving forward. In response to the student vote, though John DeGoia agreed that this work is necessary, he also stated, “The transformation that is invited in this moment will not happen immediately or easily.”

While a drop in a large bucket of higher education policy and legislation, this student vote goes beyond additional funds added to a student tuition bill. It signals – during a time where higher education must confront a hostile political climate – a change in previously held beliefs about race in colleges and universities and the programs, services, and policies that support the success of Black students in higher education. Regardless of the outcome, I believe there is hope that universities are capable of implementing and creating policies that reconcile the harm done to Black people in higher education, including those who built it and those who seek to benefit from it.

Cobretti D. Williams is a traveler, writer, and doctoral student living in Chicago, IL. In addition to his studies in educational policy and leadership, his writings offer critical analysis at the intersection of politics, education, culture, and travel. You can find more of his research and critical commentary on both Instagram and Twitter (@thenomadscholar).